In 21st century Britain people are all too comfortable with Muslims as part of the "other" communities, neatly compartmentalised into the non-white immigrant populations, with cultures that seem far removed from what is considered as European. Muslim communities are happy to be part of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic Group) organisations. Most feel there is a dialogue to be had within themselves between their Muslim and their European or British identities. Reverts to Islam present both non-Muslims and Muslims with a particular crisis of identity, often losing their perceived "whiteness" in the eyes of both born and raised Muslim as well as non-Muslims.
White reverts to Islam are often pressured into wearing salwar kameez or Arabic clothing to show the world that they are genuine Muslims, there is also a pressure to be more religious as a mark of being genuine thus acceptance is found from non-white Muslims.
I was once in a café in Worcester, a small city in the Midlands where there are not many Muslims. Being a semi-Blond haired blue eyed white skinned male drinking my coffee wearing my jeans and t-shirt with a moderately sized Persian tattoo down my forearm I was not shall we say "visibly Muslim". I grew up partly in a predominantly Pakistani area of Birmingham and am familiar with much of that culture and language. Drinking my coffee I became aware of the conversation between two British Pakistani men on the table next to me, ‘gore (white people) are dirty…………………gore will go to jahannam…………..don’t go out with a gori etc etc etc…’
After a while I decided I had had enough of being insulted (gore means white people) and asked them whether they were aware that a) who are they to assume Allah’s judgment on white people, and b) there are plenty of white Muslims? They were visibly shocked by my challenge as they probably presumed I didn’t know what they were talking about when they used the word gore. They asked me if I was Muslim to which I responded Inshallah and was met with the usual rhetoric of "mashallah when did you convert?" I didn’t convert, I responded, I was born and raised Muslim. “Oh brother, how would we know, you’re not wearing a topi” Funny, I said, neither are you two! By the way, they said, ‘gore’ means ‘kaafirs’ (non-Muslims) not white people. I know full well it doesn’t but let them entertain me with their logic.
So this brief example highlights the issues around whiteness and Muslim identity. I come from a Chechen family, half of my family was exiled out of Chechnya in the 19th century, most of them left for the Balkans working for the then Ottoman empire, so our family went from one European country populated by Muslims to another. My immediate family ended up in the UK in the early 90s.
Our culture, like that of Bosnia, Kosova, Albania, half of Macedonia, lots of Bulgarians, a province of Serbia, some Romanians, Tatars of Russia, the Circassians, Kabardians, Ingush, and 42 Dagestani ethnic groups present a challenge to Muslim identity when it is polarised in the West between white as non-Muslim and non-white as Muslim. This is a topic that presents a challenge not just to British Muslims but also to those from the non-Muslim British and European communities who see Muslims as non-White. Could it have a political value when examining questions of what it means to be other or indigenous?
Hasan Kadyrov is an Anthropologist with special interest in the Caucasus region, The Balkans, Ottoman Culture, European Muslim Identity, Islamic diversity, Sufism, Quranism and endangered languages. He is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute and works for the Inclusive Mosque Initiative.